Uqgwit kua'akameng cillkataartut. - When alders burn they make a crackling sound.
Sitka alder (Alnus crispa) is a large shrub that grows up to twenty feet tall. Found commonly across the Kodiak Archipelago, this plant thrives in a wide range of environments, from mountain slopes to coastal meadows and the banks of freshwater streams. Sitka alder often forms dense thickets in disturbed areas. You can identify this shrub by its dark green, oval, toothed leaves, which the plant sheds in the fall. Sitka alder produces two types of flower clusters of catkins: long, narrow, drooping male catkins and smaller, brown, cone-like female catkins. Another distinguishing feature is its smooth, gray bark.
Alutiiq people used flexible alder branches to construct kayaks and snowshoes. The leafy branches are also employed as switches for steam bathing, where they relieved aches and pains and promoted good health. Some people use alder for smoking fish, although the outer bark may be peeled and removed to prevent an unpleasant aftertaste. Alder is also a source of firewood, particularly in bad weather. This plentiful plant provides fuel when it is difficult to collect other types of wood.
Photo: Alder brush. KANA collection. Courtesy Priscilla Russell.
Uriisat tak’ut. - The angelica are tall.
Angelica (Agelica lucida) is a large, leafy herb with a stout fleshy stem and small, greenish-white flowers that form a large head. This aromatic plant, which grows in Kodiak’s coastal meadows, on beaches, and along streambanks, is prized for its healing qualities. However, be careful not to mistake angelica for its extremely poisonous cousin, the deadly water hemlock. Both are members of the parsley family. Angelica can only be picked and used during the warm summer months, because it does not preserve well.
In Alutiiq communities, people value angelica as a steam bath switch and medicinal herb. Alutiiqs may also put angelica leaves on the floor of their steam baths to perfume the warm air and open the sinuses. Others wave the plant’s leafy stem in the heat of a steam bath and rub it on their bodies to relieve aches and pains. The plant is also said to contain oils that heal and revitalize the skin. In some villages, people rub the fleshy, inner part of the stem and leaves on their skin to heal skin irritations. Similarly, rheumatism was once treated with wet, heated angelica leaves.
Angelica is also useful outdoors. Hikers use the plant’s stems to switch away bugs, and hunters rub their hands with angelica leaves before touching animal traps to hide their human scent.
Photo: Elder Lucille Davis demonstrates the application of angelica as bug repellent. Photo by Priscilla Russell, courtesy the KANA collection.
Uqgwik qelltairu. - Strip the bark from the alder.
Bark was once a widely used resource in the Kodiak Archipelago, despite the fact that the islands’ spruce forests are relatively recent. The coniferous woodlands of Shuyak, Afognak, and northern Kodiak began developing about 900 years ago, almost seven thousand years after people first inhabited the islands. For most of Kodiak’s human history, people collected bark from cedar and spruce driftwood; harvested it from deciduous plants like cottonwood, Kenai birch, mountain alder, Pacific red elder, salmonberry, and devil’s club; or obtained it in trade with the Alaska mainland.
Bark had many uses. People once employed spruce bark as roofing and siding material for homes and smokehouses. For construction purposes, Alutiiqs cut sheets of this material from the tree’s thick inner bark. Alutiiqs also fashioned cottonwood bark into a variety of items, including toys, gaming pieces, fish net floats, and even small masks. The bark of the mountain alder could be steeped in water to create a reddish-brown dye for coloring grass and wood, and dried spruce bark and Kenai birch bark were sources of kindling.
Bark also has medicinal qualities. It is particularly useful for wound care. Kenai birch and alder bark can draw the infection out of cuts and boils. Elders report that you can soften fresh pieces of bark in water and place them on a sore with the inner bark against the skin. Bandage the area and leave it to heal. Dried salmonberry bark can also help to heal wounds. People sprinkle the wound with a power ground from salmonberry bark then bandage it.
Photo: Bark maskette, Karluk One, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
PitRuusqarsurlita. - Let’s get some beach loveage.
Beach loveage (Ligusticum scoticum) is perennial member of the parsley family found widely across the north in Europe, North America, and Asia. Around the Kodiak Archipelago, it thrives along sandy and gravely shores. This plant features long-stemmed clusters of leaves, each with three shiny, rough-toothed leaflets. Like a number of other common coastal herbs, beach loveage produces an umbrella of small white flowers. However, this plant can be distinguished by the color of its stems. The bottom of its leaf stalk has a purplish tint.
Alutiiq people begin gathering beach loveage in May and harvest the plant throughout the summer until its leaves turn yellow. It is often air-dried by hanging bunches of the plant upside down. Like parsley, people use this herb both fresh and dried, especially to flavor fish soup, fish patties, baked fish, and many other fish dishes. Beach loveage is especially relished with the first red salmon of the season. Some people eat the boiled herb as a vegetable. Others add it raw to salads.
Illustration: Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 648.
Pingaktaanka alagnat. - I like berries.
Kodiak’s Alutiiq people harvest seventeen varieties of berries, which are used for food, medicine, and natural dyes. Salmonberries are collected in the largest quantities, although crowberries, lowbush cranberries, and early blueberries are other favorites. Berry picking begins in late June and continues well into the fall. People often wait to pick certain varieties till October or November, when they have been sweetened by a frost.
Groups of related women and children typically work together to gather berries. Men may accompany the pickers to provide protection from bears or hunt nearby. While picking, women teach their children to respect berry patches. Over-picking, breaking branches, stepping on plants, or eating too many berries are considered poor etiquette.
In the past, families collected up to fifty pounds of berries for winter use. They preserved this fruit in seal oil and stored the mixture in dried seal stomachs. Today, some Alutiiqs continue to use oil as a berry preservative, placing their fruit in jars of cooking oil. Others freeze their berries. Traditional Alutiiq ice cream, known as akutaq, is made from berries mixed with fish eggs, seal oil, and the bulbs of the Kamchatka lily. Modern versions include sugar or mashed potatoes. To make your own, mix two cups of shortening with a cup of sugar and a quart of frozen berries. Enjoy!
Photo: Ripe salmonberries. Photo by Priscilla Russel, KANA collection.
Kiagmi nunaqutaartukut alagnanek. - In the summer we go berry picking for salmonberries.
Collecting from the land remains a popular activity in Alutiiq communities. Spring greens, berries, shellfish, medicinal herbs, and driftwood are among the resources that Alutiiqs gather from the mountains, meadows, and shores of Kodiak Island. The Alutiiq language reflects the importance of this activity. In Alutiiq, the suffix –sur means “to get that thing.” Add this suffix to a noun like alagnaq, or salmonberry, and you get alagnarsur-, a root word that means “to get salmonberries.” This same suffix can be applied to almost anything you wish to gather.
However, the word for berry picking, nunaquq, is different. This verb appears to be related to the Alutiiq word for land, nuna, andmay once have referred to collecting more generally: to go outon the land. Today, speakers use nunaquq to refer only to berrypicking, although it can be applied to gathering berries of any kind.
Kodiak Alutiiqs harvest wild berries more than any other plant,collecting seventeen different varieties from mid summer to earlyfall. The most popular are plump watery salmonberries; shiny,tart crowberries; tiny, sweet alpine blueberries; and bright redlowbush cranberries. Some people freeze their berries for winteror preserve them in jams and jellies. Others eat their berries fresh.Some Alutiiqs boil berries with sugar to make a hot drink or mixin some cornstarch and allow the mixture to cool into a pudding.One popular dish is ciiitaq, a combination of crushed berries and milk. The word ciitaq comes from the Alutiiq verb ciilluku, meaning to smash it flat, and translates as “something mashed.”
Photo: Boys picking berries near Karluk, Clyda Christensen Collection.
Ikani uqgwit tak’ut. - The birch trees over there are tall.
The Kenai birch (Betula kenaica) is a deciduous tree with a grey,papery bark and pointed oval leaves. The Kenai birch grows in scattered groves around the Kodiak Archipelago. It is particularly abundant near the communities of Larsen Bay and Old Harbor and is sometimes referred to as black birch. The Alutiiq word for birch, uqgwik, is also used to mean “tree” and is sometimes applied to alder bushes. This gnarly tree is distinctly differentfrom the Alaska paper birch (Betula neoalaskana) that provides mainland Alaskans with bark for houses, canoes, and containers.
Alutiiq people use Kenai birch for firewood because it burns slowlyand generates great heat. Kenai Birch is also hard and durableand was once carved into a variety of wedges, mauls, bowls, oars, hammers, and axe handles. In addition to birch wood, Alutiiqpeople collect birch bark from both drift logs and live trees. Thebark of living trees is easiest to harvest in the spring when their sapis running. Kenai birch bark can be used to start a fire, mix up somesnuff, or make a hunting whistle or a small container.
Portions of the Kenai birch tree also have medicinal properties.Steam bathers use leafy birch branches to switch away pain andfatigue. Healers employ the bark in cleaning wounds because itcan draw pus out of an infection. Alutiiq people soak Kenai birchbark in water, place it on an injury, and then apply a bandage. Somepeople use only the loose outer bark, while others apply an entirethickness, placing the inner side of the bark on a wound.
Photo: Kenai birch tree near Karluk Lake.
Cuawat piturnirtaartut. - The blueberries are always delicious.
The Kodiak Archipelago is home to two species of blueberries, the early blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium), also known the blue huckleberry, and the alpine blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum). The early blueberry is a spreading shrub that grows in moist forests and bogs at lower elevations. In contrast, the alpine blueberry thrives on mountain slopes and in coastal tundra. Both species produce large annual berry crops that ripen in late summer. Alutiiqs typically gather blueberries in August and September. Blueberries are primarily harvested for food, although their juice can also be used as a dye.
Today, fresh blueberries are eaten with meat and fish or added to Eskimo ice cream—akutaq—with a variety of other ingredients. Seal oil, lard, dried fish, fish eggs, sugar, and mashed potatoes are all potential additions to this traditional dish. Blueberries are also made into a variety of jams, jellies, and luscious deserts. In the past, blueberries were harvested in quantity and preserved for use throughout the winter. In the Kodiak region, Alutiiqs once stored blueberries in seal stomach containers filled with water or oil. In Prince William Sound, they dried blueberries on special wooden grates over an open fire, stored the berries in containers, and rehydrated them as needed. The Chugach Alutiiq people also mashed fresh berries into a paste and spread them on skunk cabbage leaves. The paste was allowed to dry and then stored on the leaves for later use.
Photo: Early blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium).